Paradise Lost

March 14, 2005
March 14, 2005

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March 14, 2005

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Paradise Lost

A hot spot for India-Pakistan battles and ethnic violence for more than 50 years, Kashmir is far removed from its Shangri-la past but remains a golfing wonderland for the adventurer

By Story and Photographs by Rick Lipsey

As my hourlong flight from Delhi landed in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian controlled section of Kashmir, I looked out the window and wondered whether I should have listened to my wife, Carrie. While planning a golf vacation to Kashmir, I had told her that India-Pakistan hostilities in the region had substantially subsided and that Kashmir was safe for tourists. Carrie disagreed. "Do you want to see your kids finish preschool?" she said. "You're insane."

This is an article from the March 14, 2005 issue

My reason for making the trip didn't seem outlandish: I simply wanted to play my favorite game in what is reputedly the most beautiful place on earth. A territory the size of Kansas, Kashmir is famous for its white-water rivers, lush valleys, exotic wildlife and snow-capped peaks in two of the world's highest mountain ranges, the Himalayas and the Karakoram. It was Kashmir, some believe, on which James Hilton based the mythical Shangri-la in his 1933 epic novel, Lost Horizon.

The Srinagar airport was anything but Shangri-la when I arrived in October. Surrounded by several rows of barbed-wire fence, the airport also serves as an air force base with numerous barracks and gun emplacements. Tanks and other military vehicles buzzed about while sentries in bunkers held their rifles at the ready. Every day a few commercial jets from Delhi land in Srinagar, and when each one approaches the small terminal, it is immediately surrounded by a phalanx of soldiers who make a secure path for disembarking passengers.

The airport resembles a war zone because Kashmir has been the flash point of fighting between India and Pakistan since 1947, when Britain ceded control of the Indian subcontinent after dividing it and creating those two nations. During that process, known as Partition, the Muslim-dominated north became part of Pakistan and the mostly Hindu south was joined with India.

Before Partition, Kashmir operated autonomously. After Partition, Kashmir's ruling maharajah aligned the territory with India. That decision so infuriated Pakistan, which claimed ownership because Kashmir is predominantly Muslim, that Pakistan went to war with India. After two years the United Nations brokered a cease-fire by dividing Kashmir (India controls 53,665 square miles, Pakistan 32,358), but tension between India and Pakistan over the region has persisted and military clashes have been routine. There are presently about 1.5 million soldiers from the two armies stationed along the 480-mile line of control that splits Kashmir.

What's more, since 1989 there has been a civil war within India's half of Kashmir (officially known as the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir). Kashmiri militants, seeking independence and backed by Pakistan, have been fighting India's army. Almost 100,000 have died in that conflict. Over the last few years, however, there has been relative peace in Kashmir, which provided a window for my golf jaunt.

Waiting for my guide after retrieving my luggage, I studied the cheerful welcome signs and posters showing idyllic Kashmiri scenes--lakes, mountains, ski slopes, mosques, gardens, houseboat hotels and golf courses. The British introduced golf to the subcontinent two centuries ago, and today Kashmir has six courses, all open to the public. The Pakistani portion of the country has one course, Shandur Golf Club, a nine-holer at a military base in the mountain outpost of Shandur; at 13,000 feet above sea level it is the highest altitude in the world at which golf is played. The five courses on India's side include designs by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Peter Thomson. The 150-year-old Kashmir Golf Club, in Srinagar, is the fourth-oldest club outside the British Isles. (The three older courses are also in India, led by 176-year-old Royal Calcutta.)

Then my eyes came upon a copy of the English-language Himalayan Mail with a front-page headline that read WOMAN AMONG 2 KILLED IN J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] VIOLENCE. My heart began to pound. From my backpack I took out pictures of my two-year-old daughter, Claudia, and one-year-old son, Ricky, playing in the bathtub and wondered: Maybe this is insane.

I hope you find happy stories in Kashmir," said my guide, Sikander Malik. We were driving through downtown Srinagar in a white Toyota MUV with tinted windows, headed for Royal Springs Golf Course, the Jones-designed layout. Sikander, a 49-year-old Kashmiri with almond-shaped black eyes and a soft voice, was in the front passenger seat. I was in the back, my golf clubs next to me. The suffocating traffic on the narrow streets was a typical medley of cars, dogs, rickshaws, cows, bicycles, pedestrians, trucks and motorcycles. Tiny roadside shops offered everything from live chickens to Air Jordans. Soldiers stood in sandbag bunkers along most roads, tanks were parked at the major intersections, and military convoys were ubiquitous on the streets.

"Is Kashmir dangerous?" I asked.

Sikander turned to face me and smiled. "Oh, it is very safe," he said. "Soldiers simply try to stay awake. We have no fear anymore. The violence is so small--only isolated incidents."

Before the 1989 civil war tourism was Kashmir's only bona fide industry, with almost a million non-Indians visiting every year. I was told by the ministry of tourism that there were only 20,000 such visitors in 2004.

"Are there other tourists in town?" I asked Sikander.

"Maybe a few," he said, his glum tone making me wonder if the ministry's figures were wildly exaggerated.

"How do Kashmiris survive?" I asked.

"Many live in poverty," said Sikander. "Our economy is destroyed. It is too sad."

There were sentries standing inside the front gate as we rolled into Royal Springs, but the aura of war and Srinagar's impoverished street life vanished, replaced by the serenity of one of the most beautiful sites I had ever seen. At an elevation of 5,200 feet, the course is situated on a hillside that was once a densely forested nature preserve, the home to snow leopards, cheetahs and 70 species of birds. On one side of the course, a wall of Himalayan rock rises another 5,000 feet. On the other side, off in the distance, sits Dal Lake, the shimmering focal point of Srinagar where the city's famous houseboat hotels are anchored. The sprawling wooden clubhouse is surrounded by beds of roses and pansies that thrive in Srinagar's climate--rainy during the summer, lots of snow in winter. The weather was partly cloudy and 65° that day.

Despite the dazzling beauty, I was most struck by an eerie silence--and the fact that I didn't see a single golfer. "It's usually pretty quiet here," said Ghalib Shah, the club's secretary. Shah, 42, had played the Indian PGA tour before going to work at Royal Springs. "We hope that once tourists learn that Kashmir is again safe, it will become a global golf destination."

"Like Florida?" I said, joking.

Shah smiled. "You never know," he said.

Shah joined me for a round on the sporty 7,048-yard par-72 track, which is full of doglegs, multitiered greens, strategically positioned bunkers and sloping fairways. The signature hole is the 5th, a downhill par-3 of 201 yards with a dazzling view of Dal Lake. Shah regaled me with tales of the course's uniquely Kashmiri hazards. "Yesterday somebody was raking a bunker, looked up and was staring into the eyes of a Himalayan black bear," he said. "He wet his pants running to the clubhouse."

No expense was spared at state-owned Royal Springs, which has Kentucky bluegrass fairways, bentgrass greens and a computerized sprinkler system. Building a 21st-century course in Kashmir was not without its challenges. Everything from earth movers to ball washers had to be imported from the U.S. or Europe, traveling by ship to Bombay, by train to Jammu (a city 80 miles south of Srinagar) and then by truck to Royal Springs.

Construction on the course began in the early '90s, but because of the Pakistan-India conflict and the Kashmiri civil war, Royal Springs did not open until 2001. "It was common to hear [gunshots] flying around the perimeter of the course," says Michael Kahler, an American who works with Jones and was the construction manager at Royal Springs. "We were told not to worry because they were from a nearby military training base, but we never knew for sure."

Royal Springs was also a political lightning rod. Kashmir prime minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah--a.k.a. the Disco Prime Minister because of his partying and golfing in Delhi and London--conceived the multimillion-dollar project as a way to boost tourism, but opponents felt the money would have been better spent on the region's almost nonexistent infrastructure. In a country where the average annual income is the equivalent of about $300, they argued, electricity and running water were more important than a golf course.

"Kashmiris can't afford golf," says Glen Funada, who helped Kahler manage the construction, "so I always wondered, Why is Abdullah breaking the bank for the course, and who the heck is going to play here?"

Shah said Royal Springs has 130 members, most of whom are businessmen and politicians in Srinagar. Last year the club logged 7,500 rounds, only 1,000 of them by guests. One of the most avid golfers among the members is M.A. Shah, the deputy inspector general of the Kashmiri police. When Ghalib Shah and I caught up to M.A. on the 15th tee, he invited us to join him. When I told him that his routine of standing behind the ball and pointing his club at the target before each shot reminded me of Bob Tway, he deadpanned, "But I swing like Tiger!"

As the three of us walked around the pond fronting the 18th green, the jagged mountains were reflected in the still water. "Shouldn't you be working?" I asked M.A.

He draped a big right arm over my shoulders and laughed. "I am working," he said. "I have my mobile phone and command best from the course."

Ali Boktoo, 54, is a short, plump 12-handicapper who desperately wants a golf lesson. "But I'll never find one because we have no coaches in Kashmir," he said. Wearing a thick, gray wool wrap, he is sitting cross-legged on one of the two sheepskin rugs that cover the living-room floor of his houseboat. He leans forward and ladles a generous portion of hak (spinach sauteed with onions and garlic) onto the steaming white rice on my plate. We had met earlier that day at Royal Springs, and he invited me to a small dinner party on his boat.

Boktoo's houseboat is on Nigeen Lake, which is connected to Dal Lake by a canal and is three miles from downtown Srinagar. Like the rest of Srinagar's 1,500 houseboats, Boktoo's is rickety, musty and permanently docked. It is 124 feet long, 20 feet wide, made of wood and one story tall. The walls inside are covered by handmade Kashmir carpets. The exterior is painted tan and is highlighted by intricate hand-carved designs. Boats such as Boktoo's were built a century ago by the British, who lived on the lakes because Kashmiri law prohibited them from owning land. After Partition, Kashmiris bought the houseboats and turned most of them into hotels, which became one of Kashmir's chief attractions. (When Boktoo has no guests, which is often, he lives on the boat with his family.)

Boktoo first played golf in 1998 after finding a fairway wood left behind by a guest in one of the boat's rooms. "I didn't know what it was," Boktoo said. "Friends told me it was a golf club, so I got some balls. I was immediately hooked. Golf is so good for the brain--I think clearly after I play. Also, I used to have high blood pressure, but since golf I am relaxed."

And where does he get equipment?

"We have no golf shops in Kashmir," he said. "I buy used things from friends. That's why I was so happy when a friend from Europe recently mailed me a package with new golf balls. But when I opened the box"--Boktoo pauses and breaks into laughter--"the balls were soap!" Boktoo asks one of his daughters to get the balls. She returns with a sleeve of pink, dimpled soap balls. "I will only use these if I get very desperate," Boktoo says.

Like most of the Kashmiris I met, Boktoo is angry toward India and Pakistan. He considers himself Kashmiri, not Indian or Pakistani. "The politicians say they will talk and make peace, but they do nothing," he says. "Both countries are all lies. Meanwhile, we Kashmiris suffer."

"Do you ever think of moving?" I ask.

"Never," Boktoo says firmly. "We are lucky to be Kashmiri. I kiss my ground every day." As Boktoo speaks, he bends forward, splays out his arms and delicately lays his lips on the fluffy white rug.

Three of the five courses in India's half of Kashmir are in Srinagar--Royal Springs, Kashmir Golf Club and a short nine-holer owned by the Srinagar police. There's an 18-hole army course 270 miles east of Srinagar in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, a region of Kashmir known as Little Tibet because of its Buddhists and high altitude. Leh, the lowest town in Ladakh, is 11,500 feet above sea level. The course is surrounded by monasteries and snow-capped peaks, scenery that makes up for the fact that the course is on rocky tundra and has nary a blade of grass, even in summer.

Kashmir's fifth course, Gulmarg Golf Club, is also in a gorgeous high-altitude setting. At 9,500 feet Gulmarg is nestled in a small valley surrounded by glaciers and mountains that are snowcapped most of the year. After Sikander dropped me off at the clubhouse one day, I was struck by the same feeling of loneliness I had felt at Royal Springs. Then a thin, six-foot-tall teenager wearing a ratty down jacket (the temperature was around 55°) and muddy golf shoes with metal spikes suddenly appeared, ran up to me and said, "Caddie, sir?"

"Uh, well, sure," I replied. "What's your name?"

"Sir, I am Altaf Hussein."

"Am I the only player today?"

"Sir, you are the only guest for many weeks."

In the short time it took Altaf to lead me past the putting green and the pro shop (an empty shack) to the 1st tee, four men had gathered to watch me play. Altaf told me they were part of the club's maintenance crew, but one of them was A.K. Wani, Gulmarg's spritely 50-year-old general manager.

Gulmarg resembles a rough-hewn British links, with the same gently rolling fairways and the same blend of thick grasses on the greens, which were dormant when I visited. For a half century, beginning in the late 1800s, British families from throughout India flocked to Gulmarg in the summer, and golf was their favorite pastime. By 1921 Gulmarg had 45 holes and one church, St. Mary's, which still stands between the 17th green and the 18th tee.

As I stood on the 1st tee, the course looked like one giant fairway, so I turned to my gallery and asked, "Where's the 1st green?"

"Out there," said Wani, pointing straight ahead. I still couldn't see a green, so I blasted a driver at the horizon. When I turned around, Wani was smiling, so I figured my ball was in a good spot.

At first glance Gulmarg might've looked like a sprawling pasture, but once I learned the lay of the tees and the elevated greens, which are surrounded by barbed wire to keep out cows and other grazing animals, I was mesmerized by the challenging doglegs protected by grass bunkers. Credit goes to Peter Thomson, the Australian architect and five-time British Open champion who remodeled Gulmarg in the late 1970s. The best hole is the 17th, a 190-yard par-3 and one of the hardest holes I've ever played. The tee is elevated, and you hit over a swale to a small, elevated green that has a vertical wall of grass and rock to the left and a 50-foot vertical drop to the right. I was lucky to pure a two-iron that landed just short of the green, bounced through the barbed wire and stopped six feet from the cup.

But the most interesting hole is the 9th. As I walked off that green, a ski lift running halfway up the snowy mountainside came into view. Wani explained that Gulmarg is India's only ski center and has four trails, one of which runs through a small village of yak herders. Some visitors even heli-ski at Gulmarg, venturing into vast high-altitude valleys and glaciers that are covered in deep powder from October through April. Wani said that a second lift was under construction. "Someday we will be like a resort in the Alps," he said.

The lift is open year-round, so after a delightful round I was joined by Sikander for a ride. "Do you play golf?" I asked him, as our gondola slowly climbed the hill.

Sikander's smile faded. "I was a big sportsman," he said. "Cricket, football, [field] hockey, skiing. I did so much."

"What do you play now?"

"Nothing," Sikander said flatly. His melancholy took me by surprise; he had been full of smiles since we'd met two days before. But then he bent forward and pulled up his left pant leg. I cringed. A six-inch-long, two-inch deep section of the back of his leg, starting just above the ankle, was missing. It looked as if the flesh had been carved out. "I was shot by militants," he said. "The doctors had to remove the flesh to save my leg."

In 1999 Sikander was a passenger in a car belonging to a senior Indian government official. One minute he and some friends were casually driving along Dal Lake. The next minute machine-gun fire was ripping through the windows and doors. Sikander says militants were trying to assassinate the politician, but they didn't know that their target wasn't in the car. Sikander's friend, who was driving, died instantly. Sikander was lucky. "I survived," he said, "because I bent down while trying to roll out of the door, so most of the bullets flew over me."

Now, halfway up the mountain, Sikander and I stood in silence, looking down at the course and the small hotels on the valley floor. "I used to dream about getting into golf in my old age," Sikander said. "My brother plays. He has worked at some courses, and he was going to teach me. Now I can only wonder."

PGA Tour player Daniel Chopra was never exposed to violence during the seven summers he spent in Kashmir with his family in the 1980s. "It was paradise on earth," says the 31-year-old Chopra. "Kashmiris were the kindest people I've ever met. They will do anything to please you."

Chopra, whose mother is Swedish and father is Indian, moved from Sweden to Delhi when he was eight, living with his paternal grandparents for eight years. His grandparents had two summer houses in Kashmir--one in Srinagar and another 60 miles to the east in the remote town of Pahalgam, on the Lidder River, which is known for its trophy trout. Daniel's grandfather, Dev, was an avid golfer and a founding member of the Delhi Golf Club. The day he took Daniel to the Kashmir Golf Club and introduced him to the game, the boy was hooked. "I played every day up there," says Chopra, who won several Indian amateur tournaments as a teenager in Kashmir. "I owe my success in golf to what I learned in Kashmir."

The Chopras stopped summering in Kashmir in 1989, the year civil war erupted. "I go back to Delhi every year to see my family and sleep in my childhood bed, but getting to Kashmir has been out of the picture," says Chopra. "I hear the violence is slowing down, so maybe now I can return. It would be like going back to heaven."

Kashmir golf club, located in downtown Srinagar and surrounded by bustling six-lane roads, is an oasis amid urban chaos. I visited the flat, short nine-holer a few hours before catching a flight back to Delhi. I was hoping to play a few holes and meet Ghulam Mohammad, the club's honorary pro. Several Kashmiri golfers had mentioned Mohammad, who was said to be 100 years old. I was told that 75 years ago he became the first Indian golf professional and went on to have a successful career as a player and teaching pro in India.

After being dropped off in the parking lot, Sikander and I walked past an army barracks--I looked in the front door and saw soldiers sprawled on couches watching TV--and then around the clubhouse to the 1st tee. The sun was shining and birds were chirping, but there wasn't a soul to be seen. In the men's locker room I found an attendant.

"Sir, the course is closed," he said, explaining that an computerized sprinkler system had recently been installed and the fairway grass hadn't grown back yet. And Mohammad? "He is dead since a few years," the attendant said.

I was stunned, but Sikander saw a silver lining in my lost opportunity. "Maybe I will show you around my beautiful town?" he said. I accepted his offer. He took me to see the Jama Masjid, a gleaming white mosque, and the Dastgir mosque, with its kaleidoscopic papier-m√¢ché walls and ceiling. We stopped at a few carpet shops, walked along Srinagar's sinewy inlets and hired a gondola to cruise Dal Lake.

Driving back to the airport the sky turned gray and rain began to fall. I'd made many friends during my three days in Kashmir, and the trip had been inspiring, but I was glad that it wouldn't be long before I'd be home with my family. After passing through three security checkpoints on the road into the airport, Sikander dropped me off outside the terminal. "Please tell your friends to come to Kashmir," he said. "We need visitors."

"I'll definitely do that," I said.

Sikander smiled, then added, "Maybe you can tell Tiger Woods? He is a nice man. I think he would like Kashmir."

Five flights and 15 time zones later I was back in New York City, giving Claudia and Ricky a bath, during which I told them stories about Kashmir. I told them about aiming drives at snowcapped peaks and about playing while eagles soared overhead. I told them about eating hak with Ali, and of schoolkids near Gulmarg who sat in the dirt outside their one-room schoolhouse taking an exam. I told my children that someday there would be peace in Kashmir and that I would take them there to see the beautiful and fascinating land firsthand.

Carrie, apparently, had been eavesdropping. "I'm glad somebody got to have fun playing golf on the other side of the world," she said. "It would've been nice if you had asked me if I wanted to go." Wives are insane.

COLOR PHOTOStory and Photographs by Rick LipseyPEAK COLOR Buddhist prayer flags festoon a temple in Ladakh, a.k.a. Little Tibet, which is also home to an 18-hole army course. Atlaf, the author's caddie (inset) at Gulmarg, was ready to serve his only guest in weeks.COLOR PHOTOBARRY TESSMAN/NG/GETTY IMAGES [See Caption Above] THREE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONSILLUSTRATION BY INTERNATIONAL MAPPING ASSOCIATESCOLOR MAP THREE FLAGS ¬† The colors of (below, from left) Pakistani, independent and Indian Kashmir fly over the region that was divided (red line) in 1949.•Kashmir boundary•Line of control ¬† COLOR PHOTOFAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS/LANDOV (ABDULLAH)DELAYED BY WAR Abdullah (bottom left) proposed Royal Springs in 1983, but the Jones design, played by Shah (bottom right), didn't open until 2001.TWO COLOR PHOTOSStory and Photographs by Rick Lipsey [See Caption Above] THREE COLOR PHOTOSStory and Photographs by Rick LipseyHIGH ROAD Gulmarg (top left), at 9,500 feet, is surrounded by glaciers, while Kashmir Golf Club and Dal Lake (bottom) are 4,000 feet lower, in Srinagar.THREE COLOR PHOTOSStory and Photographs by Rick LipseyLASTING IMAGES From students taking a test, to security at Kashmir Golf Club to the 5th at Royal Springs, the author had stories to tell back home.